Nintendo will unveil its Switch hardware this evening at 11 PM, with a small number of consoles up for pre-order beginning at 9 AM on Friday morning. We’ve heard a great many rumors about the platform, its capabilities, price, and battery life over the last few months, ever since Nintendo kicked things off with its initial unveil video.
Thus far, the rumors have pointed to a device built on Nvidia’s Tegra X1 (Maxwell) SoC on TSMC’s 20nm process. The screen is expected to be roughly 6 inches wide, with a target resolution of ~720p. Earlier rumors that the display could be 1080p with a 1440p upscale are by no means impossible, but it’s going to be a question of weight, battery life, and available horsepower. Higher-resolution targets help one of these factors, at the cost of the other two. Reports suggest the Switch or the Switch dock will include a cooling fan as well, to allow it to hit higher clock targets, but we don’t know all the details yet.
No formal pricing details are available in the run-up to the announcement, but general expectations are that Nintendo will bring the platform in around the $ 250 to $ 300 mark. That price point would put the Switch in the same league as the older Xbox One and PlayStation 4, but its tablet / living room hybrid status means there’s basically no chance of the Switch matching PS4 or Xbox One-equivalent visuals. Nvidia’s GPUs are potent and ARM CPU cores are capable, but you can’t build 100W+ worth of hardware performance from 2013 into a tablet with a 10-15W power envelope less than four years later. Heck, we couldn’t do that when Moore’s law still applied to power scaling and product cycles were 18 months apiece.
Nintendo will address these issues, I think, by positioning the Switch as the clear improvement over previous generations of Nintendo hardware in each product market. When it’s mobile, it’ll be vastly, ridiculously more powerful than any of Nintendo’s previous handheld devices. The 3DS is based on an ARM11 quad-core CPU, but the ARM11 CPU core is nearly 12 years old and the 3DS GPU is based on an old design by PICA. Beating that with Switch is easy. Similarly, the Wii U’s CPU architecture is a few years’ shy of 20 years old, and even its newer GPU core is based on technology nearly a decade old at this point. No, we can’t stuff a 120-150W TDP console from 2013 into a tablet from 2017, but the Wii U’s power consumption was vastly lower — around 30-40W when gaming. That kind of advance is possible, particularly considering that the Wii U was built on older 40/45nm technology, not 28nm.
What we expect
I expect Nintendo to unveil a new platform that’ll try to win some third-party studio endorsements and mostly fail to do so. The Switch isn’t going to close the gap with the Xbox One or PS4 by any great degree, which means there’s not going to be a lot of incentive for most studios to try and get their software running on the platform. A $ 250 to $ 300 hybrid platform could grab early eyeballs and hype, but whether people like the Switch will depend on relatively prosaic factors: How easy is it to set up? How robust are the multiplayer modes and games? How large is the improvement over the Wii U (beating the 3DS isn’t really a question), how’s the battery life, and what does this platform really offer that Sony or Microsoft don’t?
Nintendo may be hoping it can repeat the Wii’s success with a cunning “right place, right time” platform that delivers solid gaming on televisions people already own at pricing they can afford. Looking at the trends of this hardware cycle, however, it’s hard to not feel like Nintendo screwed up the launch timing. If the Switch is built on TSMC’s 20nm process and Nvidia’s Maxwell X1, for example, it means Nintendo could’ve had the Switch ready to roll for the 2016 holiday season easily, if not even earlier. If Nintendo had launched a full year ago, it could’ve pushed Switch before the PS4 Pro and Microsoft’s Xbox Scorpio started building their own hype. Now, Nintendo has a 1080p console (best-case) competing against 4K solutions from Sony and a 4K Microsoft solution arriving this year. Nintendo took a chance on a similar market match-up with the Wii and came out ahead, but the Wii U was an entirely different matter.
As for availability, we wouldn’t even bother trying to snag one of those limited pre-orders. Nintendo still can’t put its NES Classic on store shelves, weeks after Christmas. The chances it’ll take any significant number of pre-orders are nil.